“To Turn Every Speck of Darkness into a Spectacle”: A Conversation with Saddiq Dzukogi
Saddiq Dzukogi is a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he is an Othmer Fellow. He is the author of Inside the Flower Room, selected by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for the APBF New Generation African Poets Chapbook Series. His recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Rhino, Birdfeast, Gulf Coast, DIAGRAM, Spillway, Crab Orchard Review among others.
Quiddity’s Poetry Editor, Lisa Higgs, interviewed Saddiq Dzukogi via email in the fall of 2018. The following interview that has been slightly edited for the journal.
Lisa Higgs: Your chapbook Inside the Flower Room, which was published in 2018 as part of a New-Generation of African Poets chapbook boxed set, takes its title from lines in its second poem, “Flower Room”:
When Daughter enters this world,
the silhouette of every body crams
into my eyes,
shadows in a white/black
room only a daughter knows,
a father’s soft spot, a flower room,
where she can hide spiraled in darkness.
I’m interested in this soft spot because many of the poems in this collection hint at darkness, loneliness, familial loss and grief. The poem continues, “I imagine hiding inside // My loneliness because it is convenient.” In what ways does writing give you access to this “soft spot,” assuming that the first-person narrator in your poems is in fact you, the poet.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Yes, this particular poem speaks about me and how I imagined myself in the world, before my daughter stepped into it. I know it might be a huge responsibility to have placed on the shoulder of my child, but those shoulders seem more than capable of saving me than any other shoulder I have encountered. In fact no one ever tried as much as she, and for her it was incredibly easy. I didn’t grow up the way I would have loved to. I was a child who was always afraid, who was always lacking in confidence. This affected my social life in a way, as I fellowshipped with loneliness, and looking back now, depression. My child came into this world for a reason, to reconcile my relationship with the world. I wanted more since her arrival, I wanted to turn every speck of darkness into a spectacle that will shine the brightest for her. I wanted to be more for her sake, wanted to create a world where she would feel accepted and safe. Now looking back at all of what I felt and what I was ready to do, I feel that was her purpose, to make me see that within myself I can conjure the energy to sustain a fire that will keep me warm. The soft spots are just places of vulnerability, assumed weakness that have stopped me in my tracks each time I try to put myself out there in the world. My daughter has handed me a most treasured gift that makes me want to preserve myself and the stories that have impacted my life, in a form that would endure eternity. Those are the soft spots, the places where the poems emerge and form. The places she unlocked.
LH: How important is rooting out places of darkness and loss to your writing – in the past, in the present? Does writing take some of the convenience out of loneliness?
SD: When I hear people say things like “a poem saved my life”, I absolutely relate to it. For me, the poem becomes a person, becomes a landscape becomes any object of my longing and adequately replaces the need for physical relationship with people and materials of desire, and gives me more than whatever those things and people give. I know what loneliness feels like even when isn’t apparent. I have had such a close relationship with loneliness, that when I am deprived of it I court it passionately. It is strange, but I have been lonely long enough not to trust that the lack of it, is permanent. So, I keep fraternizing so that I don’t get used to the air that isn’t tainted by it because I realized eventually it finds its way to me. I don’t know if this makes sense. But that is what I have felt like, at least before I knew a daughter’s love. And to answer your question about how important rooting the place of darkness and loss is in my writing, simply put; I have been so afraid of the dark in my life that I can’t possible see any more harm it can do that it hasn’t done. It has demystified itself by exalting too much of its power on me, that I don’t see how else it would surprise me. When darkness and loss, lose the power of surprise, then they become powerless over you. And though they still take from you, they come only as burglars, stealing only when you are not looking, because they afraid of you, now.
LH: Relationships are central to the themes of your poems in Inside the Flower Room. We have a cast of familial characters – Grandmother, Mother, Father, Sister, Daughter, lover – what draws you to inspect these relationships and to create work that is unflinching in its approach to the best and worst of these relationships?
SD:My environment is responsible for the person I am; hence it is only fair that I recognize and document how I am affected by that space of inhibition. And I try to represent it as honest as I can.
LH: In particular, you have an interest in the role of a father. Your poems work to come to terms with your own father, whose loss leaves your “siblings each / trying to hide their happiness” in “Father’s Demise.” You explore your role as a father who has experienced intense fatherly love (the beautiful poem “The Pigeon” – “Lying on my lap, my hand is a world / where I love to wash my child.”) and equally devastating loss with the death of your daughter, Baha. Now, you have just welcomed your second son, Farid. Does writing about fatherhood continue to hold an interest for you? What about this topic seems so essential to you?
SD: The man in “Father’s Demise” is not my father. My own father is alive. Yes, I have a fascination with fatherhood, first when I became a father to Bahra, the daughter who would only stay 13 months with us, showing us what joy parenthood is, the fascination enhanced, I wanted to be good at it.
I kind of think that I will continue to travel this journey, especially in the new obsession of making sure that her name endures beyond the period of my existence, into generations to come, conserved in the poems that seek to document her short but magnificent life on earth. Farid has his sister’s face. I was in the room when he first drew the air of this world into his lungs. His first cry, as he opened his eyes. These are all experiences I was experiencing for the first time. It was emotional for me because in less than a year I have felt it all, death and life. I began to cry – wasn’t exactly happy tears, it was joy and sadness ramming my body at the same time. I am a father, and all that I have learnt in life I have been able to do so through the poems, each serves as an instrument of discovery, to understand both my world and my role in it. I am interested in being the best parent to my children, in addition to thriving to be pro-humanity as best as I could. There is seemingly no end in sight for this obsession, and I doubt there would ever be, regardless the length of my journey on earth.
LH: I was very interested to hear that the father in "Father's Demise" was not your own, given how personal your poetry seems to be and how the poem is written in the first person. Assuming that many readers are likely to see "I" and create a direct line to the poet as narrator, does a poet have any onus to shed light on how much or little they are held within the first person point of view? I also realize that my understanding of the poem reflects an American view of the word "father" that may be different than your intention.
SD: I find it disingenuous when poets personalize the grief of others without without little clues that it isn’t theirs especially in persona poems. Now, I am not saying that Poets should not stretch realities with their imaginations or create one, but what I am saying is that when, it’s a persona the poet should do the reader the service of giving clues, albeit small, that the story is not their own and that they are merely telling the stories of others. When you are writing persona poem about a child, you can come off as a child narrator, or a woman coming off as a male narrator, or a living person coming off as a dead narrator. I just need clues to know what’s autobiographical and what is not, for the single reason that, when I read a poet, I need to trust them, I need them to be honest. I need to interact with the experience that they are giving to me as genuine in other to have a genuine reaction.
So for Father’s Demise’, I couldn’t tell the story until I owned it. And that my father is alive is the clue I leaned on.
LH: Toward the end of your chapbook, your poems reach toward conflicts in the larger world. I’m thinking of “Aylan Refused the Skin of Water,” “Child in a War,” and “The IDP Camp,” where physical and emotional displacement walk hand in hand. From “Aylan Refused…”:
Home is now the sea swallowing
and vomiting all who have gone into her mouth,
salty with the scenes of bullets,
pulling men and women to kneel
as they gather what remains of their children.
Home is the road being roved
in search of a house that shuts its doors when you arrive.
How do your perspectives on conflict and home challenge your readers – whether they are in Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa, or here in the United States?
SD: It is strange, just recently I was wondering what the identity of Farid would be like, having been born in the United States to Nigerian parents. For me home is an idea that should be carried inside our hearts, as opposed to a geographical location, but this is a poet reminiscing. And this home can change a lot. A simple case of where the heart feels drawn to, is where the soul feels at rest, that is home. I think the life of a poet is to serve as a witness and a record keeper of the reality they are a part of, capturing how time is spent, in poems as instruments of record. That is what I seek to do, regardless the place I find myself in.
LH: Now that you are a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have you sensed that your own ideas of home have shifted at all? Are there Nigerian elements of family and home, of war and displacement, that you have discovered are not as commonly understood among your colleagues in Lincoln?
SD: Well yes. I suspect so because there is syntactical difference between the English back home and the one spoken here. I am still transitioning and still discovering this differences that my Nigerianness afford my poetry, especially now that I am exposed to the American practice and culture. I can only tell you that I have not come here to forget my home, which I carry within me. The experiences that I have from home give me an understanding of the world. Nigeria is a complex state with numerous nations. Most Nigerians have been grilled by that complexity such that when they step into the world, they endure most that they are faced with. I am in no way saying that I am strong, and that my legs are firmly rooted in the ground, but I am a Nigerian and that means I survive most conditions that a lot cannot. Lol. I keep a watch that runs a Nigerian time, it is a ritual that help me stay connected to my Nigerian sensibilities by way of time. I might be here for six years, which seems like a lifetime. I feel I am lucky to have a supportive cohort, but my presence here gives them the opportunity to have a glimpse at what the most populous black nation in the world is like. I am a bridge just like they are too. We all have a unique opportunity to journey into each other’s experiences, culture and sensibilities. I feel in me they are experiencing Nigeria, and in them I am experiencing America, and so far, so good; the America I am witnessing through them is a beautiful one. I feel the class is a healthy melting pot!
LH: Are there any poetic sensibilities or characteristics of your poetry specifically, or of Nigerian poetry more broadly, that you sense are not as apparent or as frequently used in work by contemporary American writers? I’m not asking for a “definition” of Nigerian poetry by any means – more asking if a different cultural outlook affects the tools a poet might employ when covering similar thematic ground as a poet in another country. Perhaps this question is unanswerable, but my curiosity remains.
SD: The funny thing is that back home, they call me American poet in Nigeria. It is meant to ridicule rather than to praise. My friends and I consume a whole lot of American poetry as we we aim to publish in their journals. I am not claiming that my writing is same with what is being written here, because my English has a flavor that is new and fascinating to the American audience, maybe not because of quality, I don’t know that, but in term of taste and aftertaste. It sounds different mostly because of my having at my disposal more than just the English language to play with. I speak other languages like most Nigerian poets do. I love to think of this as an advantage. Sometimes an expression in Hausa or Nupe or Yoruba becomes super poetic when carried into the English language. Most times, these are ‘plain’ expressions, in a sense, but because these are deeply lyrical languages that are rich and have complex form of expression, it enriches our English with inimitable metaphors and images. I am not giving away my, or our secret, but this is true of most Nigerian languages, and it feels a lot easier to form a poem or what might pass as a poem, because we are thinking in multiple language, sometimes even go as far as conceiving a poem in a local language and then bring it into the English language, and in so doing it feels like another brand of English.
LH: I recently saw that you posted an Adonis quote: Poetry is an internal, personal spark, which cannot be taught. You were asking others to what degree this quote was true. What are your thoughts – can the “internal, personal spark” of poetry be taught? Or if the spark itself can’t be taught, what benefits to your own writing have you discovered in studying poetry in the university setting?
SD: I do not think that poetry can be taught, because how do you teach what is already there, dormant inside a soul? You can be a trigger to that spark and help the person realize what they carry in them. Sometimes, it takes a profound life occurrence for one to activate that latent spark that will help hand a person access to that reserve of talent, which I strongly believe every individual carry. So yes, I believe that it is an internal and personal spark, and in a way, I believe that it cannot be taught, but you see, I disagree that it is special and that not all embody it, which I suspect is what Adonis is alluding to. I know poets love to think what they do is special, and this is not to diminish what we do. I love to think that from time to time that I am special, but poetry is inside everyone, and inside everything, even lifeless bodies like stone, wind, air, fire and water. A good teacher will teach their student how to reach into that depth, into their soul to pull the poems out. This is an exercise that requires knowledge and practice, that can be taught.
LH: Have you any recommendations to an American audience on Nigerian writers – in any genre – that we should be reading – writers in the past or writers of today?
SD: Yes, yes. Read Romeo Oriogun, Gbenga Adesina, David Ishaya Osu, Rasaq Malik, Theresa Lola, Adeola Opeyemi, Dami Ajayi, Logan February, Ejiofor Ugwu, Richard Ali, Tolu Daniel, Socrates Mbamalu, Sada Malumfashi, Okwudili Neobolisa, Hussain Ahmed, Kechi Nomu and many others. These are new writers, the future; the present. Nigeria in a short time would be like Florence of the golden age of Renaissance. This is not hyperbole, it is prophesy.
LH: I know your eldest son is excited and ready for his first winter – do you think you are ready? As a Minnesotan, I’m happy to give a lot of advice on the importance of layering and wool socks. As you look forward, do you have any goals or aspirations for your poetic journey over the next several years?
SD: I am not ready; the weather is hellish. Sometimes I wish I can wear my room to class. Rayhan on the other hand is ready; shoveling each time it snows. My aspirations are simple, to utilize the opportunity that the supportive English department at UNL offers, the enjoy the mentorship of Kwame Dawes and emerge into the poet that will endure time. Amen!
LH: Thank you so much for your time. Best to you and yours.